Repairing ties between Turkey and Israel would allow both countries to work with America to combat threats from Iran and Syria, United States Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday at an Istanbul press conference.
Kerry spoke in advance of Monday’s meeting in Ankara between an Israeli delegation led by National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror and Turkish officials, who hope to find a way to fully restore diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Kerry asked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to delay his planned trip to Gaza at the end of May in order not to undermine reconciliation efforts between Turkey and Israel, as well as Washington’s renewed drive to rekindle frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
If allies such as Israel and Turkey put aside differences, they can stand up to mutual threats – one of which is Iran, Kerry told reporters.
“Without any question, this rapprochement puts us in a position to be able to not allow us to be divided on something of as enormous consequence as the potential of a nuclear program in Iran, which still has not been adequately answered,” he said.
Similarly, he said that there are “extremists who have come into Syria, they could threaten Israel, they could threaten Turkey, they could threaten simply the integrity of the state of Syria,” Kerry said.
“We have great mutual interests – Turkey, the United States and Israel – in that security arrangement,” Kerry said.
“So there are huge reasons why it is beneficial for this rapprochement to be completed as soon as possible, because it meets all of our strategic needs and interests,” he said.
US President Barack Obama last month brokered a first step in reconciliation between the two former allies, after Turkey froze relations as a result of the 2010 killing of nine Turkish activists by IDF commandos aboard the Mavi Marmara as it attempted to breach Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Netanyahu apologized in March to his Turkish counterpart over the killings and pledged compensation to the bereaved, meeting a long-standing Turkish demand. Turkey, for its part, appeared to back off on a separate demand that Israel end its blockade of Gaza.
Kerry said he sympathized with the pain of those who lost loved ones on the Marmara, particularly in light of the bomb attack on his home city of Boston last week.
“I have just been through the week of Boston and I have deep feelings for what happens when you have violence and something happens and you lose people that are near and dear to you. It affects a community, it affects a country.
We’re very sensitive to that,” Kerry said.
Since Netanyahu’s apology, Turkish officials made comments to their own media against the possibility of fully restoring ties, and have rejected any reports of possible joint military activity with Israel to counter Syrian violence or Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.
On Sunday, according to Hurriyet Daily News, Ankara rejected a report in London’s Sunday Times that the Israeli delegation currently in Turkey would ask to use a Turkish airbase to train for a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“We have already said that the normalization of our relations will be step by step. Talking about the prospects of a military cooperation at this stage would be irrelevant. We are not there yet. We haven’t even yet appointed a new ambassador to Israel,” the Turkish official told Hurriyet.
During the press conference, Kerry twice ducked questions about the Sunday Times report and spoke instead of the need for Israel and Turkey to reestablish ties.
To that end, he said, it would be best if Erdogan delayed his Gaza trip, noting that such a visit could also have a negative effort on attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which have been largely frozen since December 2008.
The Hamas-led government in Gaza has refused to recognize the Jewish state, and past vows to destroy it are a key reason behind an Israeli blockade of the coastal territory. Hamas violently seized power in Gaza from the more moderate pro-Western Fatah movement in 2007.
Europe and the United States have long demanded Hamas drop violence and recognize Israel as a condition for any dialogue.
Kerry told reporters, “We have expressed to the prime minister [Erdogan] that we really think that it would be better delayed and that it shouldn’t take place at this point.
“We thought that the timing of it is really critical with respect to the peace process that we’re trying to get off the ground, and that we would like to see the parties begin with as little outside distraction as possible,” Kerry said.
“I think the prime minister listened very graciously to that. I think he’s been very thoughtful and sensitive about it,” said the secretary of state, who noted that the topic would come up when Erdogan visits Washington on May 16.
Kerry said that Turkey had a role to play in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as it had done in the past, particularly under former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert.
While in Istanbul, Kerry also met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and discussed a new economic initiative to improve life on the ground for Palestinians.
Kerry said he regretted that PA prime minister Salam Fayyad had resigned, given his enormous contribution to transparent and accountable economic development in the West Bank.
“I think he would be the first to tell you, as I will tell you, that this initiative, this dream, this effort that we’re working towards, is bigger than one man,” Kerry said of Fayyad.
Abbas, he said, was committed to keeping the Palestinian economy transparent and accountable.
“We look forward to simply moving on, continuing and beginning to work with whoever and whatever successor or structure... president Abbas puts together,” Kerry said.
Kerry also attended a Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul on Saturday with 11 foreign ministers, and announced that the US would double its non-lethal aid to opposition forces in Syria to the tune of $250 million.
Reuters contributed to this report.